silkaatsnek – first battle

South African Battle: 11 July 1900

One of three battles on the same day  …  all three resounding successes for the Boers  …

With morale low amongst the Boers, after the recent fall of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the Boer Generals decided to mount three simultaneous attacks on the British in order to generate confidence in their fighters.

On 11 July 1900, Boer commandos attacked a supply convoy at Dwarsvlei and the British Garrisons at Silkaatsnek and Onderstepoort. All three actions were resounding successes and many Boers who had laid down their arms after the fall of Pretoria, re-joined the struggle. Lord Roberts was forced to halt the initiatives gained east of Pretoria and direct forces to Magaliesberg to counter the renewed Boer activities in the area.

Silkaatsnek is a U-shaped gap in the Magaliesberg range of mountains which affords easy passage for wheeled vehicles. The men at Silkaatsnek were in heliographic communications with Pretoria – some 27 km away. Pickets were posted by the British at sunset each day.  

In the early hours of 11 July, the Boers started climbing up both sides of the slopes of the Nek. When in position the order was for them to wait for two shots before attacking the British position. 

The Boer Commandants de Beer and Visser had their men on the east slope, with Commandants Coetzee, Kirsten and Boshoff’s men on the west. The two shots never came, as rifle fire broke out once the British pickets had identified the figures of the Boers on the mountain slopes.

With the Boers commanding the higher position, and the relatively unpreparedness of the British, the Boers always had the upper hand. The British were unable to access the heliograph due to Boer fire, and were thus unable to message for help.

However, a messenger was sent to Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander, who was in overall command, at the nearby Garrison at Rietfontein. This message, describing the serious position of the British, was delivered to Pretoria, where troops there had already heard the shell-fire, and were preparing to send reinforcements. The British artillery were also rendered ‘useless’ by their positioning and the inability of their men to manoeuvre the guns into better positions. 

By late afternoon, possibly due to a shortage of ammunition, only sporadic rifle fire was evident.  Shortly after sunset the British raised the white flag and surrendered.

Major Scobell of the Scots Greys managed to escape with some of his men, but many were captured – a figure of over 175 is recorded – later being released. They were taken to the Boer prisoner-of-war camp at Nooitgedacht, near Waterval Onder.

Those who had escaped and were making their way to Pretoria, including Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander, met the column that had been sent from Pretoria to assist the British at Silkaatsnek, and both then returned to Pretoria.

The Boers commanded by General de la Rey captured two guns which hadn’t been spiked and some ammunition. British casualties were 22 killed with over 50 wounded. All those killed in this battle are remembered in the nearby cemetery at Rietfontein. Amongst the Boer casualties was the nephew of General de la Rey.

With acknowledgement to Andre Wedepohl – “Taking into account the casualty figures on both sides, the 1st Battle of Silkaatsnek was one of the most comprehensive Boer victories of the whole war. General de la Rey’s victory did serious damage to British plans to control the Magaliesberg region. The Boers captured many British rifles at Silkaatsnek, and these were used to re-arm Boers who had surrendered their Mauser rifles to the British. The two 12-pounder guns captured by the Boers at Silkaatsnek were used to deadly effect at the Siege of the Eland’s River Garrison, just three weeks later.”

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